Madonna’s experimental record “Madame X,” creatively inspired by her life in Portugal, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart but didn’t produce any hits.
Nor did her creation of the eyepatch-wearing secret agent Madame X gain much pop-culture traction outside of her devoted fan base.
But at this stage in her extraordinary career, Madonna is – and should be – doing whatever she damn well wants.
Her film “Madame X,” which debuts Friday on Paramount+, is artistically impressive but often confounding – an apt reflection of the music titan these days.
Directed by Ricardo Gomes and SKNX as the visual companion to her 14th studio album released in 2019, the film – and Madonna herself – are determined to make not just social statements but cinematic ones as well.
Living in Lisbon since 2017 to support son David’s soccer interests, Madonna chose the city as the site of the concert recording in January 2020.
Her guests in the film are sweet and surprising – daughter Estere is part of a group singalong of “Express Yourself,” son David escorts her offstage to a chair in the crowd next to … Dave Chappelle – and the presence of all illuminate Madonna at her most unguarded.
Bookended by the spirit of James Baldwin and his quote that artists exist to disturb the peace, the show also presents Madonna telling the audience more than once during the production, “Don’t forget, none of this is real.”
Maybe so, but it is compelling. A few highlights:
Madonna’s impressive handstand
Though only a moderate chart hit in 1994, the gently thumping “Human Nature” is the first immediately recognizable song in the set. Fans respond rapturously, but their biggest cheers are saved for Madonna’s acrobatic move – a handstand inside a circular cutout that would be impressive at any age, never mind at 61, her age when the show filmed.
Getting cozy with Madonna
The advantages of the intimate environment Madonna cultivated throughout the tour – her first small-venue dates since 1985 – are showcased in her frequent interactions with the crowd. “I love to irritate people,” she tells fans with a wicked grin.
Her Polaroid selfies taken onstage (and air-dried in a most Madonna method), which she auctioned off to fans to benefit her charity Raising Malawi, were an exceptional keepsake, since smartphones were prohibited at her shows.
New ‘Life’ for an old song
The much-maligned “American Life,” the title track of Madonna’s 2003 album, plays much better live. The midsong rap, which critics eviscerated when the album arrived, is delivered with fiery urgency as it seesaws with her high-voiced questioning: “Do I have to change my name? Am I gonna be a star?”
Madonna gives a Latin touch
The ornate staging is ideally used during “Crazy” (Madonna stands atop a baby grand piano, warding off handsy dancers) and the double punch of “La Isla Bonita” and “Medellín.” Her “True Blue” gem from 1986 (originally written for, and rejected by, Michael Jackson) coupled with the “Madame X” track – which features Colombian duet partner Maluma, shown on video during the show – are a sensuous melding of Latin sensibilities. Even Madonna’s theatrical tapping at a typewriter morphs into the backbeat of “Medellín,” which employs a significant chunk of the nearly 50-person cast to conga across the stage.
Lourdes and Madonna are mirror images
In a visually stunning creation, Madonna sings “Frozen,” in all its haunted beauty, while inserted in a video of her oldest daughter, Lourdes “Lola” Leon, whose lithe dance moves prove her strong genes. The song is brushed with an additional percussive thrust, which only augments its exquisiteness.
Madonna’s ‘Prayer’ still inspires
Toward the end of the show, Madonna is joined by a choir, perfectly aligned on the steps in the shape of an “X” behind her, to perform “Like a Prayer.” It’s the closest to the original of any non-“Madame X” songs buffed and tweaked for this new era, and Madonna continues to revel in the anthem’s religious overtones as she stands garbed in a black cassock adorned with crosses. The uplift provided by the song has not diminished with age.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Madonna ‘Madame X’ review: Concert film is compelling, confounding